Monday, October 06, 2003

Your Skin Will Fit

Eyes wide open, I met Sam for lunch at Mama Teresa’s. Thirty-five years had passed since we last had a conversation. You could say that we’ve both been busy. I was unsure about the wisdom of the meeting.

Sam is now a successful lawyer, Queen’s Counsel no less. He has a lawyer wife, two dogs, three cats, a holiday cottage in the Gatineau, membership in a country club, two teenage sons. Through the years, he has maintained contact with the gang from high school days. This coterie’s members have, according to him, lived up to their promised potential: they are lawyers, doctors, educators; men who keep in touch. I remarked to Sam that the arts seemed to be under-represented when he had exhausted his list of people to mention. My words were meant for wry humour but he missed the point.

We’ve always taken the boys to the theatre, he said. (I detected some defensiveness.) Miss Saigon. Phantom. Riverdance. Lion King. The Nutcracker each December. And Paris, six times. The Louvre. Admittedly the boys were slightly bored; the Mona Lisa isn’t what you think it is. Israel twice. Both sons had their bar mitzvahs there. The ruins at Petra. At Petra we stayed in a five-star hotel for a treat.

One calculates from this that books of poetry and literary fiction do not fill the shelves in Sam’s home. He admits that his boys are not readers. Nor would there be original paintings on the walls of his canal-side home. But we are all subject to selective educations.

Sam and I went to school together. We were friendly in those early days. Yet I was never truly part of that old school group. More of a peripheral observer, circling, sometimes hoping to find an entrance, genetically unable to discover one. We lived in an Establishment-flavoured neighbourhood where traditions were preserved and particular professions preferred. The house I lived in had been purchased at one of those fabled opportune moments from a tired octogenarian. But buying the house was not enough: the family unit I was part of did not have the pedigree to grow in that manicured garden. And you know how teenagers always want to fit somewhere.

Deep down, at heart level, I knew that I didn’t fit. I was sad, rebellious, angst-ridden and read too much. Escape, even if into a dungeon of despair, seemed to be the only survival strategy in those years.

Over calamari, I gathered that he surmounted the marginalisation of being a Jew in a white Anglo-Saxon protestant milieu and followed the legal profession route to acceptance. I was neither disappointed nor surprised to hear his litany of accomplishments, contacts and material consumptions. He was saying: I’ve made it. I had no lists to share. I’d brought pictures of my children with me. They had passed unremarked as I showed them to him. I did not carry slides of my paintings or copies of my writing. Why did I find it strange that he had never spoken the name of his wife and that the names of his children only seemed to be mentioned because I asked?

After the antipasti dishes were brought to the table, he declined to select anything else from the menu. An hour and a half had gone by. I bent to my purse on the floor beside my chair, looking for a tissue. Sam assumed that I was reaching for my wallet and protested: No, no. I’ll get the bill. I write it off. He offered his business card and hurried me out. Apparently a client waited for him at his office on the next street. Keep in touch, he said. I stood in the autumn afternoon feeling chastised for unnamed deficiencies that hung like ancient scent in the air.

Days go by while I review and then let go of the thirty-five year reunion. I stand against a wall. On this wall a slide show is projected. Ghost images are readable as they hit the smooth surface but when they bleed across my three-dimensional form they are transformed. The images ask me, in the midst of their transformation: What value is there in a selective education that negates the value of the creative forces in our hearts and minds? Writers, painters, musicians, entrepreneurs of all sorts approach life at a risk-taking angle. Had my life been inconsistent, I would have been part of the wall, part of the club he belongs to. But a path in- or outside of the Establishment is neither good nor bad. It is not a moral issue. Sam is as content with his definition of success as I am with mine. Growing into your own skin. No regrets.

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